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An Exercise in Cultural Empathy

From Gaza to the Hindu Kush

by JASON HIRTHLER

Slip into their shoes for a minute. No, not into a traditional Iranian galesh or Pakistani khussa or Palestinian sheepskins. Step into the western sneakers they wear today: Nike and Adidas and Converse. Then run for cover as you hear the whistling warning of an incoming missile, drone, or helicopter.

First, you are a Gazan, wondering why your Mediterranean stretch of land hasn’t been turned into the seaside paradise it could be—with a vigorous fishing trade, sustainable agriculture, holiday tourists frolicking on the beautiful beaches, and a healthy Palestinian state partly funded by abundant natural gas supplies beneath the Gazan soil. Why instead it feels like a high-security prison camp, garroted by Arab-hating Israelis to the North and disinterested Egyptians to the South? Fulminant crews of IDF praetorians are prepared to confiscate your water and food and electricity at the slightest offense. Your people are a perpetual pariah on the global stage, like a troublesome relative at the holiday dinner, prone to revealing family secrets nobody wants to hear. And now this. The leader of Hamas, negotiating an extended ceasefire with Israel, is assassinated by…Israel. You find the level of hypocrisy staggering. Then you hear that supposed friend of the Middle East, Barack Obama, tell the world that he supports Israel’s right to defend itself. Evidently your people have no such right. Palestinians barely cross the President’s lips, except to imply that they should stop firing pointless rockets over the border.

Were you were a Gazan, would you abandon violence as a means of resistance? Would you renounce retaliatory attacks? Would you concede Israel’s illegal settlements are here to stay and forfeit your right to pre-1967 borders, despite your legal right to them? Would you simply bow your head and ask the fierce-eyed hawks atop Israel’s militarized state to show a little mercy?

Next, you are an Iranian, a member of the country’s expansive pro-Western middle class, once hopeful that Washington and Tehran might forge a bond of mutual understanding and shelve the animosity that has animated the relationship for years. After all, wasn’t it Iran that helped pave America’s path into Afghanistan by mediating with the Northern Alliance? Wasn’t it Iran who helped stabilize the Iraqi government on America’s behalf? Wasn’t it Iran who has been reasonably disposed to negotiating its nuclear goals with the West?

All of this despite the history of American aggression within your borders and on your doorstep. First there was the American-supported coup in Tehran in 1953, setting up a corrupt American puppet regime which plausibly led to the fanaticism of the Islamic revolution. Then U.S. support for Saddam Hussein’s brutal war with Iran in the eighties, followed by America’s own attacks on Iraq in 1991, Afghanistan in 2001, and Iraq again in 2003—wars that must have completely unnerved the mullahs. And now, here is America again, brandishing the leash that restrains a rabid Netanyahu while rattling its own saber at Tehran.

But all that is non-history. The historical plotline is clear: You must abandon nuclear power for the safety of the free world. Your Islamic leadership can’t be trusted with a bomb. They may be terrorists like other radicalized Muslims in the Middle East. They may be intent on global jihad and anxious for self-immolation (a certainty if they were to fire a nuke at the Holy Land). Each time you refuse to end your program of civilian nuclear power, you move further up that long list of rogue states.

You wish you could remind the West that Iran is fully within its Non-Proliferation Treaty rights. Within its IAEA rights. You would remind them there isn’t a shred of evidence that you are enriching uranium in an effort to confect a bomb. Despite having not attacked a country in decades, you are the unstable threat in the Middle East. Not hyper-aggressive Israel. Not India and Pakistan, whose Kashmir competition is an odds on favorite to spark the first nuclear war. No, the real threat sits, curiously, at the chokepoint of Middle Eastern oil. But, you ask, what makes a man like Netanyahu fit to oversee hundreds of nuclear weapons and an Iranian leader like Ahmadinejad not fit to oversee one? You stare in wonder at Americans on television reflexively defending Israel’s right to hold a monopoly of nuclear violence in the Middle East.

If you were Iranian, would you want a bomb? Would you be skittish at the prospect of an avaricious imperial superpower sitting on your doorstep—with a giant militarized fortress in Baghdad, destroyer patrols crisscrossing the Strait of Hormuz, and drones selectively zapping shadowy figures Obama picks from a PowerPoint show? You gaze up at the blue sky above you and wonder if this is what it’s really come to: your fate determined by a stiff in a suit in some distant corporate conference room.

Finally, you are a humble Pakistani living in the Northwest Frontier Province of Pakistan, on the edges of the now-infamous Federally Administered Tribal Area (FATA) and the cloud-capped Hindu Kush mountains. When you read a dog-eared copy of George Orwell’s 1984 in your teens, you thought the story was a piece of clever fiction, a warning of the perils of propaganda. Now you feel like you are living it. The random bombs that blitzed the “proles” in 1984 are now reigned down on your village by American drones. You can hear them buzzing in the sky, heard but unseen, a kinetic threat that occasionally delivers a lethal payload against an unsuspecting neighbor. You understand your government’s hesitance to attack its own people at America’s behest. You understand the comic futility of trying to police the Afpak border, despite U.S. insistence that your country do so. And you wonder, now that they’ve got bin Laden, why don’t they just go away?

If you were a Pakistani, would you condone the drone? Would you support the War on Terror, that state-led violence against stateless actors hiding in remote hamlets? Shouldn’t this be police work, you wonder. Isn’t there a more effective means of capturing civilian criminals than aerial assaults managed remotely by brainwashed conscripts in air-conditioned bunkers deep in the American desert—the gamification of warfare has finally arrived. But you recognize the political dynamic in play: To the West, the lives of American soldiers have higher value than the lives of anonymous Arabs and Persians in some far-flung dystopia. The American President must limit American casualties even as he corrals the metastasizing army of madman in yet another failed state.

These questions are surprisingly easy to answer when you put yourself in their shoes. You discover that, quite possibly, these people are lot like like you. They want peace, they want prosperity, they want to feed their families and have weekends free. One characteristic of people everywhere is a desire not to be bombed. Another is and that, pushed into a corner, they will defend their own. Shouldn’t these basic observations be central to our understanding of the world, instead of the incessant drone of media punditry that tries to dehumanize the weak and poor and voiceless?

Jason Hirthler is a writer, strategist, and 15-year veteran of the corporate communications industry. He lives and works in New York City. He can be reached at jasonhirthler@gmail.com.